“If millions and millions of people who have never heard of Jesus are going to be tormented forever by God because they didn’t believe in the Jesus they’d never heard of, then at that point we will have far larger problems than a book by a pastor from Grand Rapids.” –Rob Bell, from an interview with Relevant Magazine
“Dear friends, let us continue to love one another, for love comes from God. Anyone who loves is a child of God and knows God. But anyone who does not love does not know God, for God is love.” –John, from The Bible
Last year, before the release of his book Love Wins, Rob Bell made a video where he seemed to question whether we should be certain that Gandhi is in hell. And people (without actually reading the book) lost their minds. Most of what was said in the trailer for the book was just him asking some questions (How dare he?) that people have been asking for a couple thousand years. Really, it was a brilliant piece of marketing–Rob Bell was the top hash tag on Twitter for about a week. “Rob Bell is a universalist!!” they yelled. “False Prophet!!!” “Heretic!!!!”
Right around the time people were ready to crucify Rob Bell over a book they had not yet read (and most of them had no plan to read), I shared this analogy:
Imagine, for a moment, there was a very wise, very old man who loved dogs. This man decided to breed a new sort of hybrid dog—a wonderful dog that had the best of all canine characteristics (and it was hypoallergenic too). He made huge sacrifices for this new dog. He loved this new dog, and wanted them to love him too, so he decided to give this dog three months to become a good dog. The dog needed to get along well with other dogs, as well as recognize the man as its master in this limited time period. If the dog was not a good dog by the time its time was up, the man would take this dog and he would kill it…. This would be pretty messed up, right? There is something in just about all of us (granted, maybe not all) that would look at this and think, “This is pretty messed up.”
Now imagine that, instead of killing the puppy, the man handed it over to a man who was very skilled at torturing puppies. He would hook up electrodes to the puppy’s tail, clip its puppy nails too short, poke needles in its little puppy eyes, and use a series of controlled fires to burn, but not kill, this bad dog. This would take place for the rest of the puppy’s life—about 14 or 15 years…. This would be more than messed up. This would be criminally insane. By just about anyone’s standard. Could this man be seen as loving his creation?
Now imagine that, instead of just 14 or 15 years, this is this poor creature’s fate for eternity. Unthinkable, right? And yet, this is the narrative that we have created (and some use to attempt to bring people to God) of what happens when people die without knowing Jesus. I contend that this narrative of an eternal, tortuous “Hell” for all “unbelievers” displays neither God’s mercy, nor his justice.
Have you ever wondered if God is anything like us? I think about this from time to time…. Most of these times are when I’m dealing with my kids. Like when the boy is in the back of the mini van and asks sixteen times (in one way or another) if we can play Wii when we get home. “I’m not sure.” “I am very aware that you really like playing Wii.” “I don’t know–we’ll see how well you do getting ready for bed.” “Seriously, son–we’ll see.” “I’ll tell you this much: If you hit your sister with that elephant again, the answer will definitely be no!” “BOY, DO NOT ASK ME ONE MORE TIME OR I WILL THROW THE Wii IN THE GARBAGE!!!” …. I’m fairly certain that God does not deal with us this way, but this question of whether God is like us (or we are like God) is an important one, because our reason (as well as our sense justice) is one of the big things that makes us human. If God has a completely different sense of justice or reason than we do, that could cause some really big theological problems: Could we actually have relationship with a illogical, irrational God with a sense of justice starkly different than ours?
Most of the Christian Church believes that God is going to punish billions and billions of people who don’t know Jesus by sending them for eternity to an actual place of horrific, endless torture known as Hell. Now, there are two basic grounds that people begin to question the validity of long-standing beliefs, and both of them involve our reason and rationality. The first reason is if evidence is pointing you in a different direction than the commonly held belief (for example, Galileo sees evidence that the earth is actually going around the sun and not vice versa). The second reason is if something just doesn’t “feel” right (for example, “I know that the Bible seems to condone slavery, but I feel something inside of me just knows that slavery can’t be okay”).
So, through literary criticism a person might start to question long-held beliefs about Christian Doctrine and start to think that maybe the writers of the Bible didn’t have the same exact concept of “forever” or “everlasting” as we do today. Maybe the closest word for “forever” is the Hebrew word “olam” which actually is more rightly translated as “a far off distance” or “an age.” Maybe in the story of Jonah being in the belly of the whale for three days, he described how long he was in the whale using the word “olam.” And yet we continue to translate that word into “forever” fitting into our current idea of “eternity”–especially in regard to the afterlife and eternal punishment. Or, maybe the translators of the Bible take the word “Gehenna” (an actual place that was a place the people of the city burned their garbage) and translated it as “Hell.” This is all true, by the way.
Or maybe, people start thinking about how God has been portrayed over the years, and that portrayal doesn’t line up with what they have experienced of God’s goodness (as well as Jesus’ description of God as a loving Father). Jesus appealed to people’s reason and logic all the time when he spoke, so we know that they are important and useful in figuring things out. Jesus said, “You fathers—if your children ask for a fish, do you give them a snake instead? Or if they ask for an egg, do you give them a scorpion? Of course not! So if you sinful people know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him.” Makes sense…. But does a finite being (humans) in a finite segment of time (the time we’re alive for) receiving an infinite punishment (eternal Hell) really make sense? Can a God that is loving and merciful and JUST really be like this?
What inevitably happens when a person starts questioning long-standing beliefs about God is people accuse that person of creating a god in his or her own image. “You can’t pick and choose!” they yell. When someone says, “Wait, this doesn’t make sense!” people respond with the passage that says, “For just as the heavens are higher than the earth, so my ways are higher than your ways and my thoughts higher than your thoughts.” And yeah, I get that–God is way smarter than I am, so who am I to question the rightness or wrongness of God? That would make plenty of sense…. If that was what I was doing. But I’m not. I am questioning the rightness or wrongness of man’s interpretation of who God is (as well as man’s interpretation of scripture).
What makes sense is important. When we paint God as the sort of Being who would sentence a 15 year old kid who dies of leukemia saying “there is no God” to an eternity in hell, it simply doesn’t make any sense. That is not what God is like–It can’t be, especially when we go on to explain the Bible as a cosmic love story between a Creator and his creation–complete with mystery and magic and even the complexity that is FREE WILL. We tell people that “God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” And I believe it. But that word “perish” does not have to mean “be sustained by God infinitely in order to be tortured in Hell for not believing in Jesus” in order for that statement to be infinitely powerful and loving and cool. For God is not something which Jesus saves us FROM, but God is someone that Jesus reconciles us TO.
Perhaps you and Rob Bell are correct and all people will make it into heaven. I don’t think that is the case, but if I am wrong I will not be upset. The bible is full of mysteries, and humankind has been trying to reason these out for thousands of years. All I can do is study God’s Word and do my best to weave it into my life. I am not the judge, so I won’t call you a heretic or burn you at the stake.
Ultimately, I think we get into trouble when we try to put God in a box, when we say God is love, or God is just. (Both attributes I think He has among others most importantly being holy.)
If I could ask Rob Bell a question I’d ask him if he believes in the Nicene Creed, how about The Apostles Creed? Does his church? But since I can not I’ll ask you, what say you Chris about these Creeds?
Gabriel–Neither Rob Bell nor I believe that “all people will make it to Heaven” (I can’t speak for RB, but he has been very clear about this point in interview after interview). People seem to think that disbelief in the commonly-held idea of Hell means that the person disputing that belief is an “Everyone-gets-in” Universalist. That is not what I am. Most things about what happens after a person dies I would confess that I don’t know. RB makes a point in some interviews that (paraphrased) people choose separation from God all the time here and now…. we have to assume there will be those that choose separation in death. Now, what that looks like, we can only speculate. Maybe people cease to be. Maybe there is a Hell, and at some later date Jesus destroys all the works of the Devil and saves all of his kids. Maybe after people die, they still have a chance. Then again, maybe not. Maybe God is the sort of God who sends 13 year old Hindu kids who never even heard the name Jesus to burn in a fiery Hell for all eternity. It doesn’t make sense to me…. Does that make sense to you? And if not, is that a problem for you? We hold up our God-given reason as a thing of value–Right up until things that we have been taught stop making sense. And then we just throw up our hands, say “I’m not God,” and appeal to faith. Or people like Andrew below say “It’s all bullshit” and leave. I believe there is a third way. A way that does not pit science/logic and God/Jesus as opposing forces or an either/or choice.
And as far as those creeds are concerned, I think they’re great. I don’t like when they have been used to weed out dissenters (usually for persecution), but I have no problem with anything in either of the 2 big creeds. There is an interesting story behind their creation that you should research. As a sidenote, if it turned out that Mary wasn’t a virgin, I don’t thing it would change the truth of the gospel for me…. But that’s a big conversation.
it’s not your god given reason, it’s the reasoning that your parents chose to drill into you, try your own, I bet it works better
Thank you for being willing to think and ask questions. It really makes me sad that it is not encouraged in the church. At least not in the Conservative Christian Church (especially in the South of America), to think and ask questions that is.
It’s funny you mention people who accuse others of “picking and choosing” things out of the Bible, because they do the very same thing by harping on something like homosexuality, but then regularly eat shellfish (also an abomination) or pork, or even worse, they preach “American Jesus” (but they don’t call him that) who wants you to be rich and prosperous (something I still can’t reconcile considering Jesus Himself was poor, homeless, and regularly spoke out against the “rich”).
Everyone who reads the Bible picks and chooses. They just pick and choose different things. I mean, you have to, reading something so old, written in a certain time period, FOR a certain time period. There are valuable truths that stand for thousands of years to come, but there are also crazy things written for the context of the time that don’t carry over to today (you mentioned slavery, so I’ll just go with that one for now).
Beyond being discouraged to ask questions, I also think it’s sad that many Christians limit our thoughts and answers to the Bible. This is insinuating that for thousands of years God has not actually interacted or been able to pass down any kind of note-worthy material to His children. People say the Bible is the “undisputed word of God”. I disagree. The Bible, in the form that we have it, is a collection of historical accounts and stories (old testament) and recollections of the life of Jesus and letters (new testament).
There are many accounts, letters, and stories that were left out. And the ones that were included were written by humans (whether inspired by the Holy Spirit or not), and the Bible as we know it was put together by a man, a flawed king at that, thousands of years after it all went down. We act as though God scrapbooked this great collection and threw it down to earth Himself.
If we truly believe God can still speak to people today, then why do we limit Him to those texts written thousands of years ago. Why are His followers today any different than those back then? What’s the difference between a letter from Paul to a church he established, and an email from Rob Bell to his church when he was out on the road and couldn’t be there with them?
I’m thankful for people like Rob Bell, and Donald Miller, and you (Chris) and whoever, who are contributing to the modern-day word of God. People who are willing to wrestle and grapple with the stuff we’re going through now, and try to offer Godly explanation, commentary, questions and sometimes even answers. Anyways, I didn’t mean to write a blog in response to your blog, but just wanted to express my thankfulness for you. So, thanks!
Love it, man. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts.
please, let it go. you are trying so hard to hold onto the ashes of a cigarette (insert sky god). any time you contemplate leaving out sections of the bible from your belief system, you acknowledge that you are more moral than the god you profess belief in….you are already better than that character and I am happy to know that.
Your scenario tied to Matt. 7:10 is something I have been trying to formulate in recent weeks myself, but you put words well to my thoughts on the topic. This is a great post worthy to be shared. I am glad that I can continue in my faith these days now that I see the gospel of Jesus Christ as being truly hopeful and not contingently so.
I’ve been trying to put my words together about this for a while now. I think it’s something that a lot of people are feeling–this whole “wait, this doesn’t make sense!” sort of feeling. Our logic and reason are actually important, I think…. Even when things don’t make sense. Especially when things don’t make sense. I’m not saying that everything has to make sense all the time–just that it’s alright to start asking some questions when things don’t.
Anyway, I’m really grateful for your comment, and I’m glad my words could help in some small way. Thanks, David.
Do you think scripture teaches the concepts of original sin and a sin nature?
Scripture says that we are born sinners and that we are by nature sinners
Psalm 51:5 states that we all come into the world as sinners: “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin my mother conceived me.” Ephesians 2:2 says that all people who are not in Christ are “sons of disobedience.” Ephesians 2:3 also establishes this, saying that we are all “by nature children of wrath.” If we are all “by nature children of wrath,” it can only be because we are all by nature sinners–for God does not direct His wrath towards those who are not guilty. God did not create the human race sinful, but upright. But we fell into sin and became sinful due to the sin of Adam.
Kevin–Yeah, I think it does in a lot of ways and places (some of which are listed by Gabriel here) and most of which are talked about by Paul. I’m not sure how the whole “Original Sin” thing works. I grew up in a Calvinist church, so I was told that the T of the TULIP acronym stood for Total Depravity. It’s easy to look around and see evidence of people being really messed up. I think that, as a parent, I have seen even more evidence of the “sinful nature” (not just in my kids, but in myself as well). But it brings up some hard questions for me as well. Like “Did we ever really have a chance to get it right?” “Do we deserve to die for the sins of our parents?” And “If the free will that allows us to choose evil over good is necessary to understanding and explaining the problem of evil, are we still going to be able to have that same choice to sin in Heaven?” <–this one is a tough one….
That's the long-ish answer, the short answer is "Yes, but I don't know about the implications other than this: We all really need Jesus.
well said boeskool
So the best plan would be to believe none of it and you’ll be grand. Interpretation is fallacy which is the problem in the first place when it comes to any religion. There is one way to overcome this though. Openminded disbelief. Things like compassion, insightfullness and love are traits not beliefs and owe nothing to a fear of hell. Perhaps the notion of God should be saved from religion. Perhaps integrity is more important than subservience. Perhaps skepticism saves the world from the dark ages. Or perhaps not, who cares. It doesn’t matter.
Sounds like close-minded disbelief to me. : ) Skepticism is not incongruent with belief in something you can’t see–It happens all the time–Even belief in God or a story as crazy-sounding as the story of Jesus. The search for truth is a noble thing, Andrew. As is the belief that there is something called truth.
i read rob bells love wins in the last couple of weeks. i had not read anything else by him before, but i thought it was a great read. I came to understand recently that God doesn’t call us to judge. it says so in the bible, and so you know you’re not supposed to, but we all do, all the time. The reality is that a life with no judgement; just acceptance and love is where I am aiming. When my kids ask ‘where do you go after you die’.. or when someone asks me about someone else’s business I hope my response can be.. ‘I don’t know.. but I love them’. As soon as you realize you are not meant to be afraid for someone’s soul (you are not calling the shots anyway), you are able to love them with no string attached; and our first and primary commandment is to love.
I just read this again, and this is really good, Leon. Really good. Thank you.
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It’s thoughts like this that really make me appreciate at least one belief of the Church of the Latter Day Saints that I, as a member of the CRC, have not been brought up to believe: That there are multiple layers of afterlife, but only the worst of humanity (we’re talking really bad here) goes to “hell,” which is pure nothingness, to suffer with the Devil and his demons. The majority (99.99% or something like that) has a good afterlife, even if you were not a Mormon or even a Christian at all. God still loves you and he isn’t going to punish you, but you’re afterlife is exponentially better if you were a member of the church (you get to chill with Jesus).
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To be honest, I did not have time to read this whole post, and when I came to the part with the puppy torturing, I had to slide my eyes quickly over that part to find where it ended, like sticking my fingers in my ears while singing La La La La La….. But I do LOVE your perspective on this issue. And I love the idea of explaining the Bible as a cosmic love story.
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I really appreciate your thoughts. Eternity is an intellect-defying concept. You mentioned the Hebrew word for it. The New Testament Greek is also worth mentioning, with which I’m sure you’re familiar. The typical New Testament phrase translated in English as “eternal” is the Greek phrase “into the Age of Ages”. After decades of thinking about it, I still don’t have any absolute conclusions, but I like keeping the phrase in my vocabulary. We don’t know it all, do we?
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